Thursday, March 17, 2016

Moffat's Leaving, Capaldi Speaks Out On BBC Complacency, Other News, and My Thoughts On Moffat

Is it March 2016 already?  Geez, how time flies when you're busy!  I won't bother reviewing the Christmas Special from last year in this entry except to say that as usual, Moffat really needs to let his favorite character rest in peace.  The episode was basically comedy, which was badly needed after the heavy drama of ‘Series 9’, and not much can be said because there really isn’t much to say.


Stephen Moffat finally, thankfully announced his departure from Doctor Who following next year’s ‘Series 10’.  That’s right: We have to wait until 2017 to see the next full series.  Apparently the 2016 Summer Olympics is taking precedence on the BBC’s programming schedule and they don’t want to make the show have to compete against coverage of the games.  Okay, fair enough, but it’s still an excruciatingly long wait.  There will, however, be a Christmas Special this year.  Whew!  Replacing Moffat is Broadchurch’s Chris Chibnall, whose style of writing involves more character-driven stories than epic ones.  I think that's actually a good thing, as I’ll write in just a bit.

Peter Capaldi, recovering from surgery to repair injuries sustained on set (running and jumping around so much does takes its toll even on healthy young actors), sat down for interviews to give his thoughts on the show and the direction it's taking, and how the BBC has been treating it.  For one thing, he thinks that with regards to diversity, the show really does need to reflect the times in which it is broadcast.  He feels that the next Doctor should be portrayed by a non-white actor or even a woman.  I'm still not entirely sold on the idea of Time Lords being naturally capable of switching sexes during regeneration, nor am I sure viewers would take as kindly to such an abrupt change in the show’s title character as Capaldi seems to think, but I could be wrong.

As for how the BBC is treating Doctor Who, Capaldi did express his concern, arguing that the network is too complacent about it.  Last year the show's time slot kept changing, throwing off what the actor says has become a sort of family television viewing ritual for the long-running and still highly popular program.  I happen to concur.  Over the show’s history, various producers have held varying degrees of respect—or lack thereof—for Doctor Who.  This was most visibly seen during the mid- and late-1980s when BBC heads kept trying to sabotage the show and finally deprived it of funding so that it went on what proved to be a sixteen year hiatus.  Wiser heads have since prevailed, but now the opposite trend of too much love for the show as a cultural phenomenon has led, in Capaldi's opinion, to BBC schedulers taking it for granted that they can play such games as making viewers wait a year or more between seasons and shuffling it around the Saturday night schedule.  This can actually hurt the show as it risks losing audience members.  Long periods between seasons can, as well, lead to viewer complacency, which is often taken as a lack of interest, further undermining the popularity of Doctor Who and putting its continuation in jeopardy.

In other news, Moffat did talk about how John Hurt came to be the thought-up-at-the-last-minute incarnation of the Doctor for the 50th anniversary special in 2013.  According to him, talks with Christopher Eccleston to return to play Nine failed, forcing Moffat to rewrite the season-ender as well as the 50th anniversary episode.

Speaking of Hurt, he's coming back to portray the War Doctor for Big Finish Audio in a story that includes the voice talents of actor David Warner, a fitting casting decision to match the distinguished style Hurt’s incarnation brings to the role.


And now to my thoughts on Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who head writer...

I can best sum up my opinion of him by saying that while he has had some very good and lofty ideas—the Weeping Angels, I think, are one of the better and more original monsters ever created for fiction—Moffat simply isn't talented enough a writer to properly realize those ideas.  With a budget that is much smaller than what episode airings would have us believe, is is unable to bring his ideas to the screen in a compelling way that does justice to them.

A good example is the 50th Anniversary special.  We've all been told for years now how great and terribly destructive the Time War was to the universe within the context of Doctor Who, but not once have we ever actually seen how this was so, to the point that the Doctor, having joined the fray with everyone else and realizing the Time Lords were planning to end it in a manner even worse than anything he could perceive the Daleks doing, chose to destroy his own world and everyone on it.  What we ultimately saw on screen was a conventional war that only threatened Gallifrey, but nothing that indicates how and why the whole of creation was in danger.  it was only talked of.

When I was taking screenwriting courses, one of the big things my instructor hammered home was that it’s always better to show something in a film rather than have the character(s) talk about it.  And it’s true.  Film and television are visual media, and as such, what the audience sees has a much bigger emotional impact than what it hears.  Aside from the cracks in reality that have marked the entirety of the Moffat era and which ultimately had nothing to do with the Time War, we haven’t actually been given a visual idea of how such catastrophic events might affect reality itself within the continuity of the show.  So we as the audience cannot take seriously the concept that the Time War was so devastating because we only ever hear about it but never get to see it.

Then there is Moffat’s inability to sit down and actually watch the show.  It was already established by then-head writer Russell T. Davies in The End of Time that the reason the Doctor destroyed Gallifrey was to stop Rassilon and the High Council of Time lords from destroying the whole of Creation in order to win the Time War.  But Moffat decided that the Doctor, war-weary, simply recognized the damage the war itself was doing to the universe and put an end to it the only way he thought he could until intervention from two of his future incarnations and the very weapon he was to use changed the course of history.  This is an obvious storytelling retcon, one of many Moffat has committed thinking audience would be too stupid to notice.

There is also the problem Moffat intimated in his telling of how the 50th Anniversary special came about: rushed and last minute decisions, panicked action trying to make everything come together.  This seems to have been an ongoing problem with Moffat.  It’s a sign of disorganization and chaos.  When Eleventh Doctor actor Matt Smith announced his departure from Doctor Who at the end of ‘Series 7’, that meant Moffat had to wrap up Eleven’s storyline in a hurry, and it really shows in the rushed, shortcut feeling you get watching the 2013 episodes.  So much time is spent on the buildup that there is very little remaining to fully and properly develop the finish, which is supposed to be the big payoff.  This is why the supposedly epic ideas Moffat has ultimately end up feeling anti-climactic when put into production.  The wrap-up feels more like an afterthought than the gripping climax it was intended to be.

Throwing gasoline on those three concurrent fires is Moffat’s massive ego, which prevents him from taking any time to sit down and think things through, question his own judgment, or ask for help from more talented writers than himself.  He was a poor choice to take over as head writer because he simply was never talented enough a writer to carry the weight of an entire show, let alone the two he currently runs (Sherlock being the other one besides Doctor Who).  But Russell T. Davies wanted someone who would continue his legacy of having killed off the Time Lords, something Moffat showed he was keen to do at the time until he realized how infeasible that was, and so we ended up with what will ultimately be seven long years of writing mediocrity.

If you’re a writer and you have big ideas, you need both the budget and the talent to bring those ideas to fruition.  Stephen Moffat had neither of those crucial elements.  Sure, his dialog is excellent—I will give him full credit for his tear-jerker scenes—but his execution of ideas is highly lacking.  Doctor Who doesn't need epic stories.  It needs consistently well written ones that don’t insult the intelligence of the audience.

I hope Chris Chibnall can restore the show to what made the original so endearing and long-lasting, and go a step further by incorporating the social-political commentary that made Star Trek and The Twilight Zone so popular as science fiction.  Sure, therein lies a danger in making Doctor Who too preachy, but in science fiction, more often than not preachy just works because then you’re challenging viewers to question their own opinions and beliefs, and in so doing elevate our consciousness.  That is the very defining characteristic of science fiction more than any other aspect.  I won’t hold my breath for seeing this under Chibnall, but a man can dream.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Triple Review: Face the Raven, Heaven Sent, Hell Bent

I got distracted and wasn't able to post weekly reviews, but now that Series 9's three-parter has been broadcast and we now have the upcoming Christmas episode to look forward to, I'm sitting down to write up my review.

I think at this point the best that can be said of Series 9 as a whole is that, just like show runner Stephen Moffat, it's wildly inconsistent—so much so that it's almost physically painful.

Face the Raven

In this episode Clara Oswald is killed off.  This is a poor way to write the character out of the show because, just as did Dark Water and Death in Heaven, it completely disregards what Moffat has already set up in Listen.  In that episode, we are introduced to Clara's great-grandson by Danny Pink, Orson Pink, as he was rescued from the end of the universe by the Doctor and his human companion, and by the end of that episode we see Clara somehow manage to visit Gallifrey in the Doctor's past to comfort him as a child.

These events, having already been observed and set down as series canon, should be respected, and if they are to be disregarded then a plausible explanation must be given so as not to further insult the audience.  But that's Moffat's biggest problem: he doesn't even bother to pay attention to what he's already established within the greater story, because he is too busy patting himself on the back and telling himself how clever he is.

So we have in this episode the return of Rigsy from Series 8's Flatline.  Rigsy has woken up with a strange tattoo on the back of his neck that is a number counting down.  He calls Clara on the TARDIS telephone and informs her, and she and the Doctor set off to investigate.  Encountering Ashildr/Me once more, we learn that she orchestrated events so as to lure the Doctor to a street hidden in the middle of London that houses an assortment of aliens, with a creature called a Quantum Shade at her service executing wrongdoers if they break the Street's rules.  Rigsy stands accused of a murder he can't remember, and Clara, ever more reckless, acts upon information she's been given by a Street resident and takes Rigsy's death sentence upon herself.

By the time the Doctor realizes what she's done it's too late and all he can do is tell her a tearful goodbye before he is teleported away.

Again, this episode would have been better if Moffat would stop setting up key plot points only to toss them out the window by the next episode.  But he does, and so this leads into...

Heaven Sent

Peter Capaldi's acting chops are put to the test as he has to carry the entire episode virtually alone, with Jenna Coleman as a mental construct of Clara in the Doctor's tortured mind making only very brief appearances.  The Doctor finds himself teleported to a weird castle in the middle of an ocean that, it is revealed, is littered with skulls.  As the story unfolds, we eventually learn that the Doctor is trapped in a repeating loop of events, reliving the same day over and over for billions of years until he finally breaks free from his prison which, as it turns out, was created by the Time Lords themselves.

As a standalone episode it's a fine bit of acting we receive from Peter Capaldi, but largely unnecessary as he already has an impressive resume under his belt and really doesn't need to prove himself.

Hell Bent

Where do I begin?  Arriving back on Gallifrey after breaking out of his confession dial, a device that was first introduced in Series 9 opener The Magician's Apprentice, the Doctor returns to the old barn of his childhood and quietly waits for someone important to show up to greet him.  He is eventually met by Rassilon himself (Donald Sumpter), who is frustrated that he can't get his personal bodyguards to shoot his adversary.  The Doctor banishes Rassilon from Gallifrey, although since the planet is positioned at the end of the universe he may not actually be able to go anywhere.

This is where we see yet another inconsistency from Moffat.  According to Series 3 episode Utopia, the universe goes until the year One Hundred Trillion.  Yet after spending four and a half billion years trapped inside the recursive loop of the confession dial, we're supposed to believe that the Doctor took "the long way around" to reach the end of time.  But it can't be the end of time because there are still trillions of years to go before we're supposed to reach it.

HELL-O!  Earth to Moffat!  Sit your lazy ass down and actually watch Doctor Who from start to finish why don't you!

The Time Lords want information from the Doctor about the mysterious Hybrid, a creature prophesied to lay waste to Gallifrey and "stand in its ruins", which is why they orchestrated Clara's death and the Doctor's imprisonment in his confession dial in the first place.  The Doctor demands the use of an extraction chamber to pull Clara out of her timeline a moment before her death, causing her physical processes to become time-looped, frozen between one heartbeat and the next, rendering her ageless.  Her death is supposedly fixed in time, so naturally the Doctor's plan all along was to try to find a way to undo this.  He runs off with Clara in a stolen TARDIS to find a solution at the last moments of the universe, where he again meets up with Ashildr/Me, who theorizes that the Hybrid is in fact the Doctor and Clara together.

Obviously this can't be allowed to stand, so a rather pointless trick is played and Moffat finds a way to get Clara out of the show without killing her off, albeit still time-looped, now traveling back to Gallifrey with Ashildr/Me "the long way around" in the stolen TARDIS.  The Doctor supposedly forgets Clara, although he is able to fill in the gaps in his memory by way of the holes left there.


What really frustrates me is the arrogant, self-congratulatory sloppiness employed by Moffat throughout his tenure as head writer for Doctor Who.  He has no respect for viewers and nothing but contempt for good writing.  If he'd stop and pay attention to what he's writing, he could come up with much more clever and plausible ways to achieve the ends he wants.  As it stands, we're subjected to a tiresome parade of characters that should never have been written out of the show the way they were, characters that were allowed to overstay their welcome simply because Moffat wasn't quite done with them yet and wanted to write them out in a bigger way, and never-plausibly-explained gaffs in the storytelling.  It's insulting.

Back during Doctor Who's original run, if a character was written out, he or she was usually set up to simply leave.  There was no need to keep trying to top the previous departure of a Companion with ever-escalating drama that had so many twists it violated all rules of good writing.  But these days it's all about the Gimmick, good writing and viewer intelligence be damned.

I really wish Moffat would leave the show as head writer and let someone competent take the reigns.  But as long as Doctor Who continues to maintain higher ratings in spite of the poor quality of the stories, the BBC won't sack him.  That's a shame, because we could really use fresher, better ideas with superior execution from someone who respects viewers' intelligence.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: Sleep No More

I'm rather disappointed in this episode.

It's not that the producers decided to replace the opening theme and CGI sequence with a Matrix-style glitch in a 'found footage' scene.  It's not the horror element.

It's not even so much that the normally competent writer Mark Gatiss churned out something rather stupid, although it does contribute to the poor quality of the episode.

It's that the producers seem to have run out of steam for the show and are no longer interested in even trying to maintain storytelling standards so as not to insult viewer intelligence.

I mean, come on: Killer sleep sand?  Really?  That gunk that forms in the corners of our eyes at night and dries into crusty yellow-ish grainy stuff takes on a life of its own and devours people from within?

I realize that head writer Stephen Moffat is a one-trick pony and that this episode is basically filler until we reach the season finale in three weeks, but still, he owes us better and so does Gatiss.

I'm giving this episode the 'F' it deserves.

Review: The Zygon Invasion, The Zygon Inversion

Given that this is a two-parter, I'll review them both as a single episode in two chapters.

As was seen in the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, in 2013, Zygon invaders were...let's just say, "convinced" to negotiate a peace treaty with U.N.I.T. to remain on Earth peacefully.  By this point there are now twenty million Zygons living here disguised as humans.  An opening video made by the twinned U.N.I.T. researcher Osgood explains how fragile the peace is and that if it ever breaks down there is a contingency plan inside a red carved box to deal with what's called the Nightmare Scenario.

That scenario has now taken place, with one of the Osgoods dead (see Series 8's finale, Death In Heaven, for more info) and the surviving twin on the run from rogue Zygons who have decided that they got a bum rap from their elders when they negotiated that peace treaty and now want to live openly as themselves—or else there will be consequences.

The first part basically exists to set up the story for the second, so there's not much to review other than to say that U.N.I.T. must be scraping the bottom of the barrel for red-shirts these days.  You'd think they'd recruit people smart enough to know when they've walked into a trap and not to take the bait.  Alas, they don't.

Part Two, The Zygon Inversion, deals with the consequences of war and why it should be avoided.  Jenna-Louise Coleman delivers a rather good performance as Clara and her Zygon counterpart Bonny, who leads the aliens' revolution.

Oddly enough, Stephen Moffat for some reason decided to throw ambiguity into the mix as to whether it was the original Osgood or her Zygon twin who was killed off in Death In Heaven.  The only relevancy seems to be to reinforce the prophesy of the Hybrid, which the Doctor supposedly has a hand in creating, and which is supposed to be resolved by the end of Series 9.  We've already seen some red herrings in the form of Davros' regeneration-energy-charged Daleks, and Viking girl Ashildr, and now a third one in Osgood.  Moffat likes to play poorly-written head games with audiences, so don't expect much delivery on his promises.

I give this two-parter a C.

Review: The Woman Who Lived

Picking up about eight centuries from where the previous episode left off, we find the Doctor on the trail of an alien artifact, interrupting a robbery in 1651 England that is in the process of being carried out by none other than Ashildr (Maisie Williams), who by now has largely forgotten her name and now answers to "Me".  Bored with eternal life, she has taken to fighting in wars and robbing the spoiled rich.  The Doctor is astonished at this and resolves to help her rediscover herself.

Complicating things, of course, is a leonine alien who calls himself Leandro and who claims to have lost his family and his world, and wants to use the artifact to leave Earth.  There's just one catch: the artifact, an amulet called the Eyes of Hades, requires the entire life energy of a living being in order to open the portal to Leandro's dimension.  "Me" seems only too happy to help, and here is where the Doctor must find a way to convince the immortal girl of the error of her ways.

Although the episode was hit-and-miss, there were some decent enough bits that were worthy of consideration.  For instance, Ashildr's body may be immortal thanks to the Mire medical chip embedded in her skull, but her memories are not—the chip suppresses memories that are too painful for her to bear, and there are a lot of them.  In order to keep track of her own activities, she writes them down in journals, pages of which she tears out so she won't have to relive any events that are too traumatic.  She only keeps intact the journal of how she lost her children in the Black Death to remind herself not to have any more.

By the end, of course, things work out and Ashildr declares her intention to remain behind and attend to all the people the Doctor leaves behind during his visits to Earth.  That's to the good, because Maisie Williams is scheduled to make at least one more appearance in this series.

But beyond this bit of character building, the episode is fairly unremarkable.  I give it a C-.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: The Girl Who Died

Okay, this was a hit-and-miss episode co-written by (wait for it) Stephen Moffat, which explains why it's so hit-and-miss.

The premise: After narrowly rescuing Clara from certain death—she's floating in space with a brain-eating spider-thing crawling through her environment suit—our two heroes land in a Medieval Viking village and are quickly captured by the local warriors.  When taken back to the village, the Doctor tries rather pathetically to impersonate Odin to a disbelieving crowd when another fake Odin appears, teleports all the warriors away along with Clara and Ashildr (Maisie Williams), a village girl who is the character referred to in the episode's title, and the warriors are summarily murdered, leaving Clara and the girl to go back with a message that in twenty-four hours the aliens, called the Mire, will attack and kill the entire village.  The Doctor must then train a bunch of farmers, fishermen, and storytellers in the art of combat if they are all to die with honor, because really, there's no hope of winning (or surviving) by fighting.

The rest of the episode is the Doctor, minus TARDIS or sonic sunglasses, saving the day, and the Time Lord realizing why he chose the face he did, a face that's appeared twice in the Whoniverse.  For some reason Moffat felt obligated to offer up such an explanation, never mind that it's been done before in the Classic series, first with actress Lalla Ward stepping in to play the Time Lady Romana after playing another character, and then with Colin Baker playing the Doctor after previously portraying another Time Lord during the Tom Baker era.  Oh well.  But it does add another layer of personality to the current incarnation, so yeah, decent enough idea.

We also get hints that Ashildr will return again in Series 9 and that she will be an enemy of the Doctor next time.

What I Liked:

Clara is restored to something resembling a strong, smart female lead in the show, which is good.  So far in this season, the character has been treated like a simpering comic relief moron, which cheapens both her and Jenna Coleman, the actress who portrays her.

Classic series references harkening back to the 7th Doctor era, in which the Doctor describes ripple effects of meddling with history, and that these ripples lead to unforeseen consequences.

What I Didn't Like:

I get that both Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat are atheists and that they're not at all keen on religion.  But why do they and writers on the payroll in the revived series keep having the Doctor make some disparaging remark on people's faith in something more?  I'd like to see an episode in which the Doctor and his companion(s) are challenged to at least question if there's some guiding presence in the universe that operates in ways so subtle we often miss it.

Overall, because Moffat co-wrote it and brought with it all the usual storytelling problems, I give this episode a B-.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Triple Review: The Witch's Familiar, Under the Lake, Before the Flood

Since I didn't get a chance the past three weeks to review individual episodes, this is going to be a three-review mash-up.  Enjoy.

The Witch's Familiar

It stinks.

What?  You want more?  Okay, I'll refrain from boring you with unnecessary details and cut right to the chase.  Clara has been dumbed down this series into a simpering, comic relief moron of a sidekick.  Waking up after being seemingly disintegrated by a Dalek death ray in the previous episode, Clara discovers how Missy survived her apparent death in Death In Heaven basically by going through the same trick herself, or more accurately, getting dragged through it.  So that's one extremely rare explanation by show head writer Stephen Moffat.  Too bad it's the only one given in five years, and likely to be the only one ever.

What I found unbearable was the dynamic between Clara and Missy as they set off to rescue the Doctor.  The human should despise the Time Lady for turning her boyfriend into a Cyberman in Series 8, and there's a throw away scene in which she threatens Missy with a pointed stick, but it just doesn't feel genuine on screen.  Clara is reduced to being the comedy relief, with Michelle Gomez as the Master in female form chewing up the scenes.  Clara's presence is almost an afterthought here and it cheapens the character.  This is especially true at the end of the episode when the Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, rescues her.

The scene with the Doctor and Davros was meant to provoke tears but, again, the out-of-character nature of what turns out to be another of Davros' ploys to defeat the Doctor and grant his Daleks ultimate power just rings very false.

All in all, I give this episode a D-.

Under the Lake

Now this is much better than the two previous episodes of Series 9, and like them, is the first of another two-parter.  The Doctor and Clara arrive in an underwater salvaging base in 2119, days after ghosts have begun killing members of the crew to add to their ranks.  Upon realizing that the spectres are being used as transmitters to send a signal, with each murdered soul helping to boost the signal, the Doctor travels back in time to find out how it all started.  That's when we get a damn good cliffhanger.

Episode writer Toby Whithouse did a splendid job spinning a ghostly horror yarn, providing scares but also whetting our appetites for what comes next, which not only continues the scares but also brings back an element of true science fiction.  That brings us to...

Before the Flood

Whithouse has the Doctor start us off with a fourth-wall-breaking lecture by the Doctor explaining what is erroneously called the bootstrap paradox, in which a person, object, or event is performed by a time traveler who ultimately is responsible for making that person, object, or event come into being.  The given example is Beethoven: The hypothetical traveler tries without success to locate his musical idol, and in desperation uses all of his collected sheet-copies of Beethoven's music to publish them in the past.  The question then is, without an original creator, how did the music appear in the first place?  But as I said, this is the wrong paradox, although writer Whithouse may be forgiven for having gotten it wrong as he is not a scientist.  What he's actually describing is what I call the Terminator Paradox, in which traveling back in time to witness or alter past events actually results in causing events in the present to occur.

Anyway, the Doctor and two crewmembers from the base who came with him arrive in a soon-to-be-submerged military training town circa 1980, to locate the cause of the ghosts.  The learn that a spaceship that was found in the previous episode is actually a hearse, and that its cargo, still very much alive, is responsible for starting the chain of deaths.  The Doctor realizes he can't change events that are already set in stone, but tries to alter what he can.

As with Under the Lake, Before the Flood captures the emotions of the characters rather well, and we get to expand our minds with our share of science-y questions.

The only gripe I had was with two rather poorly written and improbable scenes in which characters who'd shown no previous attraction to one another suddenly declare their feelings.  Come on, writer-people!  You can do better than that!

I give these two episodes a B+.